Born in 1930, Jasper Johns spent his childhood in small South Carolina towns. At age twenty-four, he moved to New York.

From the mid–1950s, Johns's work combined cool logic and private compulsion. His breakthrough 1954–55 painting Flag instigated a series of paintings of the American flag and of targets that stunned the art world. As his paintings became more complex, Johns placed alphabetical and numerical sequences in grids, and inserted words and actual objects into his art.

In January 1958 the fledgling Leo Castelli Gallery in New York held Johns's first solo exhibition. Almost simultaneously, a target painting appeared on the cover of Artnews magazine and The Museum of Modern Art acquired three of his works. Johns's art became widely discussed both as an extension of and as an attack on Abstract Expressionism, the dominant art movement of the time.
At the end of the 1950s Johns moved on from the hard-edged style and representative imagery that had won him immediate acclaim. He began covering the pictorial field with aggressive brush strokes and introduced a more layered sense of space. In False Start (1959), he exploited a discordance between actual colors and the words that name them. Johns's growing focus on process and craft received an impetus from his initiation into printmaking in 1960. He routinely painted in a new mode while simultaneously producing graphic works based on earlier motifs.
Around 1960 a chill, dark, and bleak tone invaded Johns's work. Gray, formerly an impassive neutral, became an expression of mortality and gloom. During this period, the appearance of hinged sections, diagrammatic instructions, signs, and labels may have reflected the enormous impact on Johns of the art and writings of Marcel Duchamp. In 1961, he introduced an important motif, the map of the United States.

In a manner that was to become central to his work, Johns began using impressions of his own body to combine themes of fatality and sensuality. He made the Study for Skin (1962) by pressing his own oiled features against paper and then affixing charcoal to the stain.

From the mid–1960s to the early 1970s, Johns's work became still more eclectic. He explored altered formats and variable scales and used screenprints, photo reproductions, neon, and metal, among other materials and techniques, to produce some of the largest works of his career. Johns's progress has been punctuated by large paintings that seem to sum up lines of inquiry, but the panoramic Untitled (1972) also served as a point of departure. The picture's leftmost section is covered by a wholly new motif of colored clusters of hatch-marks.

For nearly a decade beginning in 1974, this "cross-hatch" pattern became Johns's exclusive vehicle of expression. Although he is rarely discussed as an abstract painter, these cross-hatch paintings are among Johns's central works and constitute a singular chapter in the history of modern abstract art.
In the early 1980s, Johns incorporated into his work a proliferation of new motifs—three-dimensional objects (including body casts) and literal depictions of planks, faucets, clothing, and ceramics. He started to include "trick" images from perceptual psychology. Johns's first appropriations in this period were the pair of armored pikemen, abstracted from a detail of Matthias Grünewald's Isenheim Altarpiece (c. 1512–16), who are cryptically outlined at the left of Perilous Night (1982).

In the late 1980s, the art of Pablo Picasso emerged as a powerful presence in Johns's art. The autobiographical traces that had appeared in the early 1980s intensified and extended into memories of early childhood. In the Seasons (1985–86), this period's most ambitious works, Johns assembled artifacts and seasonal symbols to narrate the stages of life and the periods of his career. Johns's "self-portrait" shadow, which recurs in all four of the paintings, was inspired by Picasso's painting The Shadow (1953).

By 1990, when he turned sixty, Johns had become dissatisfied with interpretations of his work that depended heavily on prior knowledge. This had allowed critics to "see" virtually indecipherable motifs. Realizing that knowing often replaces looking, Johns decided to force attention on the transformed, borrowed image, independent of its original source. Among the images based on tracings from an unknown source is one that appears first as the central motif in Green Angel of 1990.

In 1992–95, Johns made a synthesis of his tracings and his new motifs when he conceived a closely related pair of exceptionally large untitled canvases. Here he used elements from Mirror's Edge (1992), the etching The Seasons (1990), and the Grünewald altarpieces, "laid over" the reversed imagery of Untitled (Red, Yellow, Blue) (1984). These grand, summary pieces weave together and reformulate the conundrums of picture-making and the concerns with time, memory, personal history, and art history that have continued to absorb Johns.

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All works ©1996 Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY
©1997 The Museum of Modern Art, New York